Jamala vs Lazarev: The Story Of The 2016 Eurovision Song ContestWritten by Ben Robertson on January 3, 2017 | 1 Comment

As the ESC Insight team have been remembering, within the thousands of Eurovision songs from the 2016 season there are many of tracks that have touched all of us deeply. However the narrative that dominated the top of this year’s Eurovision table is undoubtedly the Story of the Year. Ben Robertson writes about the two Eurovision songs that dominated the headlines this season.

Our Eurovision Winner, ‘1994

There are very few songs that grace the Eurovision stage with any kind of lyrical substance. It’s an even smaller selection of those that deliver a hard-hitting message and turn it into a scoreboard topping performance. While suffering from some English as a Second Language traits, making the lyric very direct and jarring, the history lesson told made ‘1944’ unrivalled in its passionate message; giving emotional progression which culminates in the most delectable Turkic chorus.

The lyrics and message are on point with the musical tones throughout the three minutes. The understated drum groove beat lets the vocal stand as focus of attention weaving around the authentic woodwind and grubby sounding suspended chords. Leaving plenty left for the vocal to shine through the last minute, the outpouring of emotion that crescendos throughout the piece was brilliantly and artistically written. As the music ends the subtle slow down in tempo just adds to the tension as Jamala returns the lid to this regrettable chapter in human history.

With each runthrough Jamala showed a level of artistry few Eurovision acts can rival, owning the music and sending the Press Centre into pin drop silence on more than one occasion.The performance also proved that the impact and iconicness of your stage show matters far more than the fanciest of props and firework showers. It is always a pleasure to be reminded of that fact.

A Good Winner For The Song Contest

In terms of winning Eurovision, I think I speak for everybody on the ESC Insight team that regardless of personal taste it is such a pleasure that our Song Contest can have winners as diverse as ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, ‘Heroes’ and now ‘1944’ in a row. Eurovision is truly all encompassing.

Detractors have repeatedly signaled out the fact that Jamala’s song was a poor winner of the Contest and did little to help the competition commercially. There’s little to defend this fact. Jamala might be a household name back in Ukraine now, but of the light entertainment category rather than musical superstar. She’ll certainly enjoy being one of the jurors on Ukraine’s Eurovision selection show in February, but is probably frustrated her recent follow-up single about her grandmother’s past is picking up nowhere near the traction ‘1944’ did. Shame, as it’s another beautiful history lesson.

Sure the spread of ‘1944’ as a song pales to other tracks this year; the 4 million Spotify streams are light years behind ‘If I Were Sorry’ on over 67 million. Yet we all have to remember that ethnic jazz is hardly going to be setting the charts alight – it never has done so and isn’t going to any time soon. 4 million is a brilliantly healthy number.

To measure Eurovision success purely in terms of hit potential dismisses the equalising nature of Europe’s biggest entertainment show. Being an international smash is just one of many ways you can do well in this competition just like throwing pyro bursts in all directions is another. Jamala does have a song that spoke volumes on the night and felt poignant coming on for the reprise at the end of a four hour TV marathon.

I’m not the only person though to question just how something as off-kilter as ‘1944’ managed to end up as the victor however.

The Many Layers To Jamala’s Victory

Everything had to fall into place for Ukraine to scramble those that tiny margins to end up victorious at the top of the leaderboard. Remember ‘1944’ did not win the Semi Final, and in the Grand Final did not win either the jury vote or televote. Indeed, any other Eurovision voting system ever used would not have returned ‘1944’ as our winner.

What has struck me since Eurovision is how Ukraine managed to clamber away with a win. I said throughout the build up that it *could* win, but only if everything fell in its favour. Everything did fall into place on Grand Final night to set up what culminated in a 23 point victory.

  • Within the running order Ukraine got the push in the second half and felt epicly placed in-between conventional performances from Latvia and Malta, whereas Australia’s first half draw could have just been the required kick in the other direction.

  • The lack of Turkey in Eurovision this year alongside an under-par Azeri entry, creating another unique voting bloc for Ukraine above their usual strong showing. Certainly watching the Grand Final in Stockholms Eurovision Village you could see equal numbers of Turkish flags alongside Ukrainian being held aloft during the reprise.

Couple all of these factors to the narrative against Russia as hot favourite, with Ukraine hoovering up probably small numbers of anti-Russian resentment to turn 8’s into 10’s. We’ve already established that the Stalin-affected countries gave Ukraine an above normal boost and that could be hypothesised as supporting shared history. Add this to a televoting boost Ukraine got in the Grand Final which probably has a smidge of that anti-Russian rhetoric thrown in as viewers were looking for something to topple Sergey. Western media kicked in during the last 24 hours to highlight Ukraine as an alternative to the seemingly unstoppable Russian entry.

I’ve answered so many ‘fans’ since May adamant that Ukraine won just because of politics. That’s by far an oversimplification. Politics was just one of many factors that resulted in this victory against the odds. It’s also dismissive to suggest that the politics is unique to this victory, as both Conchita and Måns had made their fair share of PR about their love for all and positivity for free rights. What was unique this year was that the margin was so close the politics had a direct impact. Each of the above facts contributed slightly to help Ukraine on Saturday May 14th. Take a couple of them away and I’d be very confident in arguing that Australia would have held on resolutely to their jury vote lead.

Winning against all the odds, I think Ukraine’s rise to victory on their return to Eurovision is our modern Eurovision version of the David vs. Goliath fable. The only difference in this version is that Goliath could also go home, head held high, as a champion in their own right.

Jamala Was Not The Only One

This is the embarrassing thing where I reveal this year’s Russian entry is probably my most listened to song post-Stockholm. Certainly the performance is my most watched. I have marvelled Sergey Lazarev’s Super Mario antics at least a hundred times (both perfectly executed and falling over) and wondered how I could possibly replicate it for a fraction his rumoured €1 million budget.

When I first heard ‘You Are The Only One’ I knew it was destined for falling short competitively, the song’s dated Europop genre just being too easy for enough jury members to have the excuse to ignore Russia. In the end Russia took home zero points from half of the professional juries, rough going for a heavy pre-contest favourite.

So much is a bit of a shame, and certainly the song wasn’t deserving of the last place result the Lithuanian jury awarded it. As formulaic old fashioned Eurovision as one may want ‘You Are The Only One’ still punches above many others in its field, with the title hook casing point stronger on each run iteration until the final chorus key change. That gives much needed welly in the right place before the music strips away just as the vocal harmony carries the title praise with as much aplomb as the 1,000+ Contest songs we’ve had before.

Whereas I might forget previously slick yet innocent Russian Eurovision songs in a hurry, ‘You Are The Only One’ will cement itself into Song Contest folklore before any other song this 2016 season.

I don’t think any song from this season can rival the Russian track for iconicness; this was the performance we all remember setting new bars for technical wonder on the Eurovision stage. The ‘thunder and lightning’ line is throwaway atrocious and weakened the song’s credibility, but I know you all race to say the next line when watching a worrying weather forecast. The way this song really won though was for changing what seemed impossible; Russia’s character.

Taking Russia Back From The Brink

With Russian foreign policy if anything more divided from the rest of the continent Sergey was coming defenceless into the Eurovision lion pit. However unlike previous representatives from the world’s largest country he wasn’t torn to pieces by the baying crowd. A long drawn out charm offensive meant that with two countries to go in televote announcements the crowd in Globen were left cheering for a Russian act for the first time in a long time.

It should be no surprise that a Eurovision audience is hostile to Russia. The hardcore fans on the floor of the arena are not just dominated by many Westerners (few Eastern Europeans can buy the expensive tickets) they also often fall to the homosexual side of the love spectrum. They also all have, with all their flag-waving furore, a good knowledge of politics especially within the equal rights movement. So much makes Russia enemy number one in the current climate. While there’s hardly much to make that rhetoric stop any time soon, the blow has certainly been softened.

Russia didn’t win when everything got totted up, but Saturday May 14th changed the course of history for the character of Russia. Sergey returned to his heavy touring schedule branded as the ‘people’s champion’ and with Russia’s pantomime villain persona removed. With a trip to Ukraine potentially hostile for any Russian act it was essential the cloak of doom was lifted.

Much will come from who Russia send to Kyiv this year. Should a big pan-Soviet megastar of Lazarev’s pedigree want the chance to perform this would likely nullify much angst from the Ukrainian audience as well. Russia’s pride may have been hurt losing out to Ukraine in Stockholm, but the gains of Russia winning the title in hostile territory across the border are the stuff of political dreams.

Kyiv's International Exhibition Centre will host the Eurovision Song Contest 2017

Kyiv’s International Exhibition Centre will host the Eurovision Song Contest 2017

There’s another chapter of this epic battle to write in the 2017 season. Jamala’s victory and Lazarev’s proud performance have ignited the Russia/Ukraine victory to an all time high in the world of this fluffy musical entertainment show. Without doubt the coming of age of this saga is our Story of the Season.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson focuses on hot issues across the continent as well as piling through the minefield of statistics Eurovision creates. Ben moved from the UK to Sweden in 2011 and is the Stockholm Co-ordinator of Melodifestivalklubben and a Bureau Member of OGAE International.

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One response to “Jamala vs Lazarev: The Story Of The 2016 Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. Eurojock says:

    Really good article, Ben, giving a balanced view as to why Ukraine won and Russia didn’t. Of ‘You are the Only One’ you said, ‘the song’s dated Europop genre [made it] too easy for enough jury members to have the excuse to ignore Russia’. I would agree that this was the key factor in Russia not winning but whether it was an excuse or more of a case of juries doing their job properly is a matter for debate.

    The following songs probably all merited more points for being more contemporary and chart friendly – Sweden, Bulgaria, Latvia, France and Malta.

    Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia and Armenia all delivered songs that were more artistically credible.

    That is before even mentioning the likes of Australia, Belgium, Israel, The Netherlands and Lithuania who (arguably) may not fall into either category above but delivered strong and votable packages on the night.

    Whatever the precise reasons, I’m glad You Are The Only One didn’t win because it would have set the contest back ten years.

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